But like Mao in China he failed his people
Putin’s historical legacy will be that of a villain
Despite his recent atrocities, half the Russian population idolizes Putin. Their views have been perverted by the slew of Russian propaganda the government inundates them with. However, eventually all Russian people will know the horrors he inflicted on the Ukrainian people.
Putin earned the nation’s loyalty by bringing stability to post-Soviet Russia. He was named acting president on New Year’s Eve 1999 when Boris Yeltsin stepped down, and he was officially elected president in March 2000. Putin has controlled the Russian state ever since, including his brief stint as Prime Minister from 2008-2012 when Dmitry Medvedev nominally took the helm, but was actually Putin’s puppet.
Presenting an aura of strength at home and abroad, Putin won over the populace early on. He increased the standard of living for the middle class, which later decreased during the global financial crisis of 2008 when the price of oil declined. He also stabilized the conflict in Chechnya, a Muslim state in Caucasus region that had been fighting for independence since the 1990s and garnered international attention with high-profile actions including the occupation of a Moscow theater in 2002, which resulted in deaths of 120 of the 800 hostages and most of the Chechen rebels when the Russian military used narcotic gas to end the standoff, and the subway suicide bombing in 2010 that killed 23 and injured 72.
Putin had bigger goals. He and his ambitious associates divided Russia’s means of production amongst themselves, creating a class of oligarchs and allowing Putin to become the richest man in the world. This move was the antithesis of Marxist theology. He began invading neighboring former Soviet Republics to support breakaway regions that would be loyal to him and useful to his plans of regaining territory lost during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. He immediately recognized the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova. Next he helped liberate Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the Republic of Georgia. The annexation of Crimea and the support of the separatists in Donbas also went unchallenged. Now, the world watches in horror as Russian troops under his command bomb Ukrainian civilians in Putin’s attempt to “Anschluss” the region the same way Hitler united Austria and Germany.
It is important to note that Putin’s popularity is stronger among the older generation, whereas younger Russians are eager for change. Putin has succeeded by destroying all opposition from journalists who criticized his heavy-handed tactics to politicians who sought free and fair elections by having them shot or poisoned. By cultivating a class of oligarchs loyal to him alone, Putin has secured his autocratic position. He has also used the Orthodox Church as a pillar of support. LGBTQ rights have become a flashpoint pitting the Church against progressively-minded Russians. An April 2021 BBC article noted that, “Mr. Putin’s rule has been marked by conservative Russian nationalism. It has strong echoes of tsarist absolutism, encouraged by the Orthodox Church” (BBC). (“Vladimir Putin: Russia’s action man president,” BBC, April, 16 2021)
It is not surprising that during Putin’s reign, there has been a revival in the status of Josef Stalin—a dictator who was responsible for the death of an estimated 20 million residents of the Soviet Union via the Terror Famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine, banishment to labor camps, and direct executions.
There is a saying, “Mao Zedong could have been a hero if he died in 1949.” That was the year he defeated Chiang Kai-shek of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and turned China into a communist nation. Despite what people feel about communism, that was not Mao’s failure. The problem was his disastrous attempt to transform Chinese society. His Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) was a program to boost industrialization and agricultural production; it was so poorly implemented that up to 45 million people died. Its humiliating failure and the harsh criticism that followed spurred Mao to enact an even worse program: the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966 to Mao’s death in 1976), wherein Mao accused party leaders of being supporters of capitalism and encouraged the nation’s youth to purge China of its bad elements leaving around 1.5 million party elites and intellectuals dead. Mao may have fulfilled his goal of liberating China from Western domination and transforming it from a quasi-colonial state into a communist state, but his economic and social policies were complete disasters. In short, Mao was a hero by defeating the Nationalists and ousting the Europeans, but lived on to decimate China’s economy and devastate the social order by pitting young and old against each other. (Christopher Klein, “What was the Cultural Revolution?” History.com, August 9, 2019)
Like Mao, Putin started off good by stabilizing the post-communist Russian state, uniting Russians, and promoting the middle class. But then he let his ego take control and divided the nation’s wealth between himself and his cronies and embarked on a legacy project to restore the Russian empire at the cost of the Ukrainian and Russian people.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine negates any positive benefits he brought to the Russian society and taints the Russian nation the same way Hitler’s actions destroyed and humiliated Germany.